Romans 13 is an often confusing chapter but only because it is often not read in context. Check out the notes and video below!
After telling us to live peacefully with all men if we are able, in this short chapter Paul now talks about the Christian’s relationship to civil authorities, others, and ourselves. This chapter has been really abused lately by people masquerading as Christians who think Romans 13 teaches that all government should always be obeyed and supported no matter what they do. Of course that’s absolute absurdity.
Acts 5:29 says, “Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, We ought to obey God rather than men.”
David Guzik says, “The connection between Romans 12 and Romans 13 is clear. If the Christian is not to seek personal vengeance, it does not take away the government’s authority to punish wrongdoers.”
Let’s jump in.
1 Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.
One thing to keep in mind regarding this chapter is that it is Prescriptive, not Descriptive of human government. This doesn’t describe all governments for all time, but rather prescribes how government SHOULD be and what God’s purpose is in having governments.
The Berean Call writes, “The idea that it is God’s perfect will for each ruler in power to be there is a misunderstanding of Romans 13. Paul is teaching that without God there would be no purpose for life, no order, and thus no basis for authority; and that God has ordained that just as there is order in the natural world, so there must be among men. Therefore, each ruler ‘is the minister of God for good.’ As God’s representatives, rulers are supposed to minister God’s laws in righteousness. Actually, very few do.”
The Pulpit Commentaries says, “It is of God's ordering that there should be human governments and human laws. Without them there could be no order, security, or progress among mankind.”
2 Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.
3 For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same:
Because under a decent government acting in the will of God, evil is punished and good is rewarded. That is God’s design for government. So an evil-doer shall receive judgment or condemnation at the hands of this government if he behaves wickedly. If you do what is right, you should be rewarded or recognized for that.
Adam Clarke writes, “Here the apostle shows the civil magistrate what he should be: he is clothed with great power, but that power is entrusted to him, not for the terror and oppression of the upright man, but to overawe [intimidate] and punish the wicked.”
4 For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.
Minister means to serve. So government is the servant of God to do good for the people. So if someone does evil he should fear punishment.
2 Chronicles 19:5-6 says, “And he set judges in the land throughout all the fenced cities of Judah, city by city, And said to the judges, Take heed what ye do: for ye judge not for man, but for the Lord, who is with you in the judgment.” Like these judges, governments are supposed to be God’s servants to do what is right.
To bear the sword refers to capital punishment; the death penalty is Biblical, and we see this for various crimes in the Old Testament law. This began in Genesis 9:6 which reads, “Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.”
5 Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.
In general people obey laws for fear of punishment, but for the Christian we should also obey because we recognize God’s authority. We shouldn’t steal not just because we’re afraid of getting caught and arrested, we shouldn’t steal because theft is morally wrong.
6 For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God's ministers, attending continually upon this very thing.
For the reason that it costs money to put people on trial and to punish evil, to support a police force, we should pay taxes.
Adam Clarke again makes a great point here, “there is no insinuation in the apostle's words in behalf of an extravagant and oppressive taxation, for the support of unprincipled and unnecessary wars; or the pensioning of corrupt or useless men. The taxes are to be paid for the support of those who are God's ministers-the necessary civil officers, from the king downwards, who are attending CONTINUALLY on this very thing.” Which thing? The thing of punishing evil and rewarding good.
The United States is a perfect example of a wicked nation that has extravagant and oppressive taxation. Our tax dollars literally fund the murder of babies. The amount of taxes we pay that actually goes towards legitimate justice is extremely miniscule. The vast majority goes to fill the pockets of the wealthy, operate military bases all over the world, it goes towards greed, and bureaucracy, and corruption and mismanagement at every level.
The so-called COVID stimulus package sent $10 million tax dollars towards “gender programs” in Pakistan. This is not a legitimate country, and our tax money is used almost exclusively for evil.
7 Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.
So for the government that should be obeying God, we should pay appropriate fees and taxation as is required. “Custom” in this verse refers a form of taxation or fees.
We see similar instruction regarding government in 1 Peter 2:13-17.
Now in verse 8, Paul moves from talking about civil authorities to how we should treat each other.
8 Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law.
9 For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
Galatians 5:14 touches on this point as well and reads, “For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” Jesus said basically the same thing in Matthew 7:12 and 22:39-40. James in chapter 2 calls this the “royal law.”
Why does love fulfill the law? Because…
10 Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
So Paul covered our duties to civil government, and God’s prescription for the role of government in the first 7 verses, to how we should treat each other in verses 8-10, and now in verses 11-14 we read about our conduct towards ourselves.
11 And that, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed.
Don’t delay in striving to live a holy life following after God. Yes, we are all works in progress but that shouldn’t be an excuse to sin. Albert Barnes explains the verse well and says, “You are advancing nearer to heaven. You are hastening to the world of glory. Daily we are approaching the kingdom of light; and in prospect of that state, we ought to lay aside every sin, and live more and more in preparation for a world of light and glory.”
12 The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light.
The night when we walked in darkness is over, we have the light of the gospel, and so we should reject the ways of this world. The armor of light almost certainly refers to the tools, armor, of our warfare as described in Ephesians 6. How do we leave sin behind and become more Christlike? By putting on our armor and bearing our sword daily.
13 Let us walk honestly, as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying.
14 But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof.
Paul tells us what NOT to do like in many other places in Scripture such as Galatians 5. The solution isn’t replacing a sin with something noble or virtuous, that secular philosophy might suggest, but the solution is Christ. Seek Christ, follow Him, read and study His words in Genesis through Revelation.